The Lost Art of Lament


I'm going to admit something right off the bat... I stink at titles!  So my blog title today is from a book by my friend Michael Card (we're friends, really.  I gave him a book a few years ago at a conference here in Fredericksburg. If I give you a book we're automatically friends.  Actually, if I lend you a book we're probably friends because I really value my books, and I generally assume if I lend a book I'm probably never going to see it again, so I don't do it a lot.  Btw, Michael will be back in town this fall for another conference.  If you haven't been to one before, you should definitely go!).  So, the book is called A Sacred Sorrow - Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament and there is a great CD (one of my favorites) that sort of goes along with it called The Hidden Face of God.  So there's my plug for my homeboy (seriously, we follow each other on twitter, we're like brothers).

Also, my sermon title this past week was from another book, this one by John Piper (we are not as close as Michael and I.  I was close enough to touch him once but I thought that might be kind of creepy).  His book, When the Darkness Will Not Lift: Doing What We Can While We Wait for God – and Joy, tells the story of several saints from church history who struggled with lifelong depression.  It is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it.  So there's my plug for one of my theological heroes.

So, this past week I mentioned that I have seven reasons why we need to lament.  I didn't have time to share them Sunday, so here they are.

Seven Reasons We Need To Lament

1. The World is Fallen

     To put this another way – the world laments.  A few years back I started a blog (which has long since gone away) called The Tears of the World (again, title stolen from one of the songs on Michael Card's album mentioned earlier).  There wasn't much to it.  It was basically just a list of news stories, mostly from twitter, about tragic situations around the world.  It was intended to drive home (for whatever 2-3 people probably ever viewed it) that our experience in 21st century America is not the norm.  The world laments; in fact, the whole creation laments according to Paul in Rom 8.22 "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time."  So we too should lament, we should lament for creation, we should lament for the world, we should lament for ourselves.

2. We Are Fallen

     In the first service this week the worship team played a song during the offering called Did Christ Over Sinners Weep by one of my favorite groups, Indelible Grace.  You can hear the song here.  These are some of the lyrics:

Did Christ over sinners weep, 
And shall our cheeks be dry?
Let flood of penitential grief, 
Burst forth from every eye.
Burst forth from every eye.

Behold the Son of God in tears,
The angels wondering see.
Hast thou no wonder, O my soul?
He shed those tears for thee!

     There is perhaps no more personal reason for us to lament than our own fallenness.  In our hearts we still remember the garden and we long to return.  We long to come out from the bushes, remove our fig leaves and find that we are naked - and unashamed.  We have seen glimpses of the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem, we know where we are headed and we cannot wait to drink from the river of the water of life that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb.  If we do not lament our own sin we have no true understanding of it.

3. It's Good For Us 

In his science textbook Exploring Creation with General Science, Dr. Jay L Wilethe explains, "tears you cry when your eyes are irritated... are chemically quite different from the tears you cry when you are upset!  Tears produced by strong emotions contain chemicals that do not appear (to any great extent) in tears produced by eye irritants.  These chemicals include manganese (a chemical depressant), leucine-enkephalin (a chemical that helps control pain), and the adrenocorticotrophic hormone (a chemical produced by bodies under stress). When you get rid of those chemicals by crying, the net effect is to make you feel better.  By releasing those toxins, then, the tears serve to chemically and physically make you feel less depressed!  Thus, it really is true that you tend to feel better after a good, long cry." (p 377)  So lamenting is actually physically and emotionally good for us.

But it isn't just that crying is good for us physically and emotionally.  Lamentation is also spiritually good for us.  In Ecc 7.2-4 the teacher tells us in three different ways that lamentation has spiritual benefits.  "It is better to go to the house of mourning than the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.  Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.  The heart of the wise in the house of mourning, but the heart of the fool is in the house of mirth."  So would you be wise?  Then lament.  Would you have your heart made glad?  Then lament.

It's not just the OT either; Jesus himself tells us in one of his most well-known discourses, the Beatitudes "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Mt 5.4).

4. The Bible Supports/Commands It

     At the most basic level we should lament because the Bible tells us to.  The OT has a multitude of examples of God commanding lamentation.  In the Torah God commands Israel to set aside certain days to "afflict" themselves (Lev 16.29-31; Lev 23.27-32; Num 29.7; Dut 16.3) which while not lament per say, would have undoubtedly involved it.  In Joel 2.17 the Lord commands, "Between the vestibule and the alter let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, 'Spare your people, O LORD...'"  While such support is not as common in the NT at least one passage seems to suggest that we ought to.  "And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we await eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom 8.23).  So, while not a command, it is certain that we who live between the cross and the second coming are expected to lament.  For a more decided command, Rom 12.15 tells us to "rejoice with those who rejoice," and "weep with those who weep."  So it is clear that even NT saints should lament.

5. The Saints in Heaven Lament (Rev 9-10)

     We all know that the Bible promises that God will wipe away ever tear and that in the new heavens and the new earth there will be no more sorrow or sadness.  But evidently that is not the case in the afterlife between now and then, because the book of Revelation indicates that even the Saints in heaven lament.  "When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.  They cried out with a loud voice, "O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" (Rev 6.9-10).  Notice that the saints cry out, this sounds like lament to me (of note, this is also an imprecation (remember, that's a prayer of curse) which at least suggests that this is not just an OT thing, but that's for another blog).

6. Jesus Lamented (Mt 23.37; Jn 11.35)

The last two reasons may seem redundant, but there is a slight difference.  When I say that Jesus lamented I mean that as the Son of Man, in his humanity, he lamented.  I'm not separating his humanity and deity, but I am making a distinction.  Here I am getting at the fact that Jesus, as the second Adam, the ideal human, wept.  In Mt 23.37 he laments over the hard-heartedness of Jerusalem.  In Jn 11.35 he wept over the death of his friend Lazarus, the pain of his beloved Mary and Martha and perhaps over his own impending death, resurrection and the reality that even that would not convince his people of who he was.  No personal fall to account for, therefore no distortion of his affections, his reason, his will, his emotions or his physical body - and he wept, he lamented.

7. God Laments (Rom 8.26; )

Jesus, in his humanity, lamented, therefore leaving us an example to follow.  But more than that, God himself laments.  There are those who would take issue with this, I won't try to defend it at this point though I have done so elsewhere.  I would simply point out that two NT scriptures indicate that the Holy Spirit laments.  Eph 4.30 warns against grieving the Holy Spirit, which indicates that it is possible to do so.  More explicitly, Rom 8.26 tells us that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us in prayer with "groans that words cannot express."  Someone may wish to argue that this is not talking about lamentation, but given the context of vs 18-25 where the concept of groaning occurs two other times with reference to the creation and we ourselves and clearly indicates some degree of sorrow and grief it is only reasonable to assume that the word used here in reference to the Holy Spirit possesses the same significance.

So there are seven reasons why we should lament and lament often.

Stuff from Sunday

There were a few other things I mentioned Sunday.  Among those was my analysis, if you will, of the book of psalms.  If you remember I suggested that the dominant tone of the book of Psalms is one of lamentation.  I offered some percentages.  Keep in mind these are not scientific stats, just anecdotal, but I figured I'd offer my findings in case anyone wanted to follow up on it for themselves.

I suggested that by a conservative estimate 22% are dominated by a tone of lament.  I also mentioned that that estimate left out at least 29 other Psalms that I would consider laments, bringing the total percentage to 41%).  So here are the psalms of lament I included ( ) and here are the ones I left out ( ).  You can add or subtract from those, and look around for the others I mentioned that aren't laments as such but which clearly address those experiencing some sort of suffering, sorrow or distress.

Finally, I mentioned the album Beauty Will Rise by Steven Curtis Chapman and the story behind it.  I also mentioned an interview that Larry King did with the family and said I'd include it this week, so here it is.

Final Thoughts

I want to reiterate something I said Sunday.  Lamentation, with or without hope ought not be the dominant melody of the Christian's life.  Even when it is the dominant harmony, as I suggested it ought to be, we should still need to strive to praise God for his covenant love and faithfulness because that is our hope in suffering just as in success.  But we cannot glorify God with our hearts till we have grieved our losses with our mouths.  We cannot enjoy God forever until we have cried out to him in this life.  So let's rejoice in suffering, but let's not forget that there is room for suffering in our joy as well.  These two can go hand in hand in our lives because they went hand in hand in the life of our Lord as well.  As I said in closing Sunday, we will suffer in this life, but we will never suffer alone.  He is always with us through his body, the church, and through his Spirit - and shared suffering is endurable suffering.